For a movie all about being different, Summit Entertainment’s adaptation of Veronica Roth’s novel, Divergent, sure knows how to stick to the generic YA formula, so feel free to stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Shailene Woodley stars as Tris, a teenage girl in a dystopian future Chicago, where as a means to prevent the type of vaguely mentioned war that predicated the current state of low property values in the Windy City from ever happening again, society has been divided up into five factions based on personality types: Erudite (intelligent), Amity (pacifist), Candor (honest), Dauntless (brave – and who act as the city’s soldiers/police) and Abnegation (selfless – and who also, subsequently, run the government).
Because clearly human segregation has always led to such peaceful outcomes in the past, right?
At 16, teenagers get to to choose which faction they belong to, although the outcome of a prior psychological test and parental expectations do weigh heavily on their decision, since the choice is a very permanent one. Problem is, Tris’ secret test results shows her to be Divergent, i.e. somebody who fits into more than one category. This is a really, really bad thing. We know this is a really, really bad thing because Kate Winslet’s power suit wearing, lip smacking Erudite leader, Jeanine, says so, and we’re just going to have to take her word for it, okay?
Fitting in both nowhere and everywhere, Tris goes through a bout of angsty teen indecision before eventually choosing the tattooed, leather wearing Dauntless, much to the very shocked dismay of her Abnegation parents, played by Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd. Soon, leaving behind her family, she and the rest of Dauntless are off running, jumping and hollering – apparently their default setting – onto/off moving trains, and straight into the obligatory training portion that takes up most of the film. A training portion in which Tris makes some new friends in the form of the Sassy One, the Funny One and the Dopey One. Fleshing them out more than that certainly isn’t necessary for this review, seeing as the movie mostly never bothers to.
Tris, in all her apparently evil Divergent ways, discovers that while she’s good at tactics, she’s pretty terrible at the more martial aspects of Dauntless’ training, much to the sneering ire of Jai Courtney’s Eric, one of Dauntless’ leaders/instructors who sports a haircut as angry as he is. Luckily another senior instructor, Theo James’s Four (yes, his name is Four), who is as hunky as he is glum, is there for some extra fighting lessons and, later, the obligatory making of the puppy dog eyes.
Not that these lessons turn Tris into an overnight Amazonian warrior due to the fact that, well, the script calls for her not to be. That being said, I couldn’t shake the feeling that even if the opposite were true, Woodley – who is a very talented young actress – simply isn’t quite as at home in her action heroine boots as her contemporary (and Summit’s clear model for this role), Jennifer Lawrence, was in The Hunger Games. Also, not helping much is the fact that Dauntless apparently practices the world’s most awkward looking martial arts – it’s like a self defense system built around the chicken dance.
The reason I mention something as pedantic as the silly fighting style, is because it’s a symptom of one of Divergent‘s biggest problems: undercooked ideas. All Roth did in her story was take High School cafeteria politics – the cool kid jocks over at this table, the nerds in the corner, the stoners over there, etc – dress it up in some grimy, post-apocalyptic garb, and make the whole “where do I fit in” teenage angst tangible in the form of the Factions.
But it all rings rather dumb when you realize that this concept was barely thought through further than just being a logline to pitch a book publisher, leaving you with a host of questions. Human beings cannot just be distilled down to a single character trait, so how is doing so supposed to maintain peace? Just why is the existence of Divergents such a threat to societal stability? Why is choosing a faction other than the one you were born into such a big, emotionally disruptive deal, as the film clearly shows that you can pop off for a visit to other factions any time you want? And sweet, jumping Jehosophat, when is this second act going to end?!
Evan Daugherty’s (Snow White and the Huntsman, Killing Season) script just slogs on through the mire of the film’s turgid middle, as Tris tries to improve her physical shortcomings and climb high enough up Dauntless’ leaderboards to avoid being kicked out, while at the same time discovering clues about a possible government coup and Divergent pogrom being planned.
Which sounds like she’s doing a lot more than the script actually calls for, as the talented Woodley is criminally underused for the most part, only getting to show off those impressive dramatic chops in the film’s final act and bits and pieces before then. And while Winslet plays a blizzardly villainess, the script ultimately also leaves her rather toothless. Even Miles Teller, so brilliant opposite Woodley in The Spectacular Now, is here relegated to the role of a stereotypical bully. Maggie Q’s Dauntless tattoo artist, Tori, may as well have her name legally changed to Ms. Exposition Dump. It seems that with the exception of the stud-faced Courtney, who gets to chomp down his lines and spit them back with fire, no talent is safe from the mighty morphin’ mediocrity powers of the material.
Director Neil Burger (Limitless) makes it all look really good though (in that run-down, end of the world kind of way), and does his best to to keep things stimulating with some decently shot and choreographed action beats. But in the end we just take far too long to get to the story’s meat and bones, really feeling the film’s 2 hours and 20 minutes running time. Time that could have been spent with a much better diversion, if you ask me.
Last Updated: April 2, 2014